PITTSBURGH — A lot of colleges and universities both in and around the Pittsburgh area are unable to experience fall sports seasons due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
One such university in that boat is Duquesne.
As was first reported by NBC Sports Washington’s Tyler Byrum, the Atlantic 10 Conference was planning on conducting its fall sports seasons in pods based on proximity. Though the conference itself never confirmed that as the for-sure option, commissioner Bernadette McGlade did previously mention reductions in conference scheduling, which would almost certainly remain in effect for a potential spring season. Duquesne would have been in a pod with Dayton, Saint Louis and St. Bonaventure.
Last season, the Duquesne women’s soccer team was able to advance to the Atlantic 10 Championships, but fell in its first-round contest 5-0 versus top-seeded and eventual champions Saint Louis.
Pittsburgh Soccer Now’s Duquesne reporter Zac Weiss spoke with the team’s coach, Al Alvine in a conversation which was largely COVID-19 focused. Based on last year’s schedule, it would be reasonable for four non-conference contests to be completed, but as previously stated that is not the case.
The conversation is lightly edited and the final question was moved for organization purposes.
Zac Weiss: I am sure you were making preparations for the spring schedule and the fall season when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, how were things progressing with your team when the news came and the world as we know it came to a stop?
Al Alvine: “We were actually progressing very well. We were coming out of a point where we had a really good winter session in the weight room and the weather was gearing up where we were able to get outside and train relatively early. We had everybody back from last year, we didn’t graduate anyone. Obviously when the pandemic hit, it took all of that away.”
ZW: When the pandemic hits, how much emphasis is taken away from sports and just focusing on being a coach or even a father figure to your team?
AA: “That was the biggest concern. You kind of realize that we get so wrapped up in the sports side of it, getting results and it really puts things into perspective as to what is really important. Obviously when that happens, your immediate thoughts go to doing whatever we can to support our players and their families. Obviously they were shifting to a completely different way of learning with remote classes. They did a great job and had the best GPA of any team in the school in the spring, so a lot of credit goes to our kids for being able to adapt to different challenges and scenarios.”
ZW: How coaching naturally helping your ladies take care of the tasks at hand, whatever they may be in the given moments in the past few month?
AA: “That’s biggest part of the job at this point and biggest before we headed back to school. We had a lot of Zoom meetings and it was an opportunity to help build the culture of our team a little bit and get to know each other a little bit. If there is a silver lining in all of this it is that we can get to know each other, it helped us build our relationship a little bit more and it is what we were able to take out of the quarantine period.”
ZW: Given the shutdown and how every city and state reacted differently to COVID-19, how much more individualized was the coaching where maybe players do not have gym access and have to be more creative in their training?
AA: “Everybody’s different, there are different facilities and some kids don’t have any and for a long stretch of time everything was closed. Some kids are lucky enough to have gyms in their homes which is great. Really it was about finding out what each person’s individual needs are of maintaining their training. We used the resources we had to help them train on an individual basis. Our strength and conditioning coaches did a great job of putting workouts online that they can utilize. Nothing is going to replicate training with your teammates but I really believe our kids made the most of what we had at our disposal. Watching our kids training now, it is clear that a lot of them thrived in that process and came back bigger than I had ever seen them before.”
ZW: The Atlantic 10 had initial ideas for a fall sports season including a proposed pod system which for Duquesne would have included Dayton, Saint Louis and St. Bonaventure, and that would have represented a lot of the schedule. As we know this did not materialize because COVID-19 numbers did not improve. How much of a roller coaster was it just logistically planning for your team, trying to be in touch with the conference and where you are at now?
AA: “My staff and I had a couple of different plans in place and just when you think you are going to be moving ahead with one plan, something happens and that all changes. It’s the uncertainty of it all and it is what puts you on edge most. With our pod, it was put together geographically so now we are planning on a flight to Saint Louis and now it is probably not the best time in the world to be flying, so now we went from flying to probably needing a bus. For us to take a bus to Saint Louis was actually more expensive at the time than to fly to Saint Louis and then you have to account for going to St. Bonaventure and at the end of the conference schedule we were going to play them twice on a Thursday and a Sunday. So then you are spending four days up there so it’s definitely a lot of ups and downs. At the end of the day, I think the conference certainly made the right decision in trying to postpone to the spring and making a better student-athlete experience. It would have been a difficult fall for us having eight conference games and eight of those games being against three teams. It was the best they could come up with, but laying low and seeing if we can have more of a traditional season was the right move.”
ZW: How similar do you treat practices now to a normal spring season save for exhibition games and adhere to your pods?
AA: “It’s a challenge, we are training a different way than we’re used to. There’s no contact allowed. We are not in a different phase, but we got permission to alter the phase that we’re in. We’re still not allowed to have contact, so we can’t play soccer traditionally. It is a lot of technical work and the kids are in the gym a couple of days a week. We’ve had to change what we normally do on the training ground. The way that the pods have worked out is pretty evenly matched in terms of competitiveness and ability. Where we are at now is two pods instead of three. All of the rules still apply with what we can and cannot do but all of our off-campus kids are in one pod and all of our kids that live on campus are in another pod. It kind of works out and making sure the pods are separate and we make sure they keep their distance as much as possible. We are stretching and cooling down as well and are always wearing masks which is probably the hardest thing for everyone to get used to. Everybody in the athletic department has done a great job, especially with all of the protocols put into place and directives from the department, university and state as well.”
ZW: Communication has been key and of course during the spring you all used Zoom but how much of of dialogue is Zoom-based now versus keeping distance in person?
AA: “We’re still limited with the amount of people we can have in one place but now we’re at least able to get a film last week. It is easier now that we are able to have some of the kids together. We’re always distancing but with Zoom, I don’t know what we would have done without it over the last six months or so. Now that we are able to be on campus and be talk to a certain amount of people face-to-face of course with a mask on and six-feet away. There is always going to be a challenge no matter what but we are happy, there are schools in our conference that are not back on campus. We are on campus and we are able to train. As bad as you think you may have it, somebody out there always has it worse and that is the approach we are taking. We are looking to make the most of this opportunity because you never know when it may change. If there is one thing this has taught us, the level of uncertainty that is surrounding this whole situation has forced everyone to adapt and change. It makes us more adaptable as players and coaches which is not necessarily a bad thing.”
ZW: When you look at things from a mentality standpoint, how are you all trying to stay positive and focus on the task at hand?
AA: “We are at a point now where a lot of classes are kind of a hybrid model for school where some classes are in person and some aren’t, while some are online. There are people who conceivably may not be required to leave their dorm room, so you may have all of your classes online. I think for a kid like that, they are chomping at the bit to get out and practice when we practice. Since we started it has been really interesting to see the kids get excited about playing soccer again.”
ZW: How readily available has Duquesne made COVID testing if someone on the team or staff would need to have that available?
AA: “Right now we are doing random testing. Kids are being checked for symptoms every day. The testing has been made readily available to coaches, players and staff. It was kind of unfortunate that (assistant coach) Erica (Marshall) just got tested (Thursday) and it wasn’t the most pleasant experience for her but testing is something we are doing more and more of. The issue for us was finding the most effective test with the quickest turnaround. The first one we had was taking a little bit too long to get some results back. Now we’ve got the test where it takes a couple of days to get the result versus a week or so.”
ZW: Without disclosing any names, obviously in respect to both HIPAA and common sense, is it safe to assume that everything is clean so far?
AA: “Absolutely, for us, yes. Knock on wood, we have not had any problems, so we can’t complain.”
ZW: Perhaps the one thing that COVID most impact might be recruiting. How much does that aspect affect trying to find future Dukes?
AA: “It’s huge. We’re in a dead period right now and it’s been extended. Now we are watching film that kids have sent us. We’re doing Zoom meetings with potential student-athletes all the time and we’re at the point where we’re doing virtual tours where we take them around campus while they are sitting at home, all through a cell phone. It has been a pretty effective way for kids to see the school. It is nice for kids such as those in New York and New Jersey where we recruit a lot not to have to drive to Pittsburgh.”
ZW: There of course is the potential that not much changes towards playing in the Spring, how much dialogue have you had with the senior student-athletes were an additional year of eligibility to be offered?
AA: “There’s that opportunity for those kids but the reality of it is a lot of the kids already have plans in place. You have kids going to law school, med school or grad school. Those are conversations we will have to sit down and have if we get to that point. It would affect our scholarship budget and the numbers we are recruiting, so these are important conversations to have with everybody, not just the seniors. Some kids will be able to take advantage of that which is kind of the nature with how these are set up.”
ZW: Given the way the season ended against a very good Saint Louis team in A-10’s, how did that result motivate this team with everyone returning?
AA: “It’s a big motivation. It was an eye opener playing against a team that has not lost at home in a very long time. The reality is we gave up an early goal. If we don’t, it’s probably a little bit of a different game. There were some positives to take out of that game. The whole team is coming back and we have some really good freshmen so there is a lot of motivation for us to go out and try to get another A-10 Championship. We’re a team that we believe we have the talent, athleticism and now you add that experience piece.”